24 Jun 2009
Saint Louis: Reliably Excellent
It is quite possible that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the leading summer opera destination in the United States.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
It is quite possible that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the leading summer opera destination in the United States.
There. I said it. Let the Glimmerglasswegians and the Santa Fesions rail and fuss, but OTSL has really got the whole package together: top quality musical offerings, exciting young singers well on the road to major careers, well-considered theatrical stagings that rival any major house (any), and an extra-musical ambiance that is just about unbeatable. Approaching the house through the lawn area profuse with candle-lit tables, free to any pre-show picnickers who care to use them, and being able to stay after the show to party, applaud, and mingle with the artists in the large Fest tent, well, it is sort of Glyndebourne without the ‘tude.
Add to the mix the fact that this troupe has consistently performed their repertoire in English, in a small house that fosters great immediacy of the theatrical experience, at competitive prices, and, good God, it is 'popular' opera! (Even when the title is not of the bread-and-butter variety). True, the Loretto Hilton lobby is cramped on SRO evenings but. . .there is always a stroll available on that candle-dotted lawn.
My recent visit found this resourceful company in its usual fine artistic form, beginning with as enchanting a production as I imagine possible of Mozart’s Il Re Pastore (The Shepherd King).
Wolfgang’s youthful (he was nineteen) work is set to a much-used libretto by Metastasio, and is of the formulaic opera seria vintage. You know, the kind that can be dead boring no matter how well it is performed. Not so here, thanks to a wholly winning, and dramatically truthful production directed by Chas Rader-Shieber.
For Mr. R-S has imagined it as a sort of Upstairs Downstairs episode with high notes, set in an English country house in a prior century, where a wealthy young woman and her fiance are hosting another well-to-do couple for a visit. After perusing the actual score of Re in this setting, our heroine becomes committed to the group’s enacting the story as the day’s entertainment, assigning roles to not only the other society figures, but also to the bustling servants.
This giddy, play-acting atmosphere yielded impressive results, not only in filling the story with meaningful (and not distracting) stage business, but also allowing for emotional honesty and invention in the many (usually) static set pieces of this genre. It did not hurt that David Zinn’s set was one of the most beautiful I can recall on this St. Louis stage, impeccably dressed. Nor that Robert Perziola’s classy costumes spoke volumes in defining the character relationships, and clarifying plot absurdities, including one drop-dead-gorgeous beaded gown for “Arminta.”
But all this technical brilliance would have been for naught without a top notch cast, and this, too, OTSL delivered in spades. The Gerdine Young Artists development program is a model of its kind, and this investment obviously pays off handsomely as four of the five soloists are former participants.L to R (foreground): Paul Appleby as Agenore, Daniela Mak as Tamiri, Alek Shrader as Alexander, Heidi Stober as Aminta, and Maureen McKay as Elisa in Il Re Pastore
Heidi Stober was radiant as the young affianced woman who is compelled to impersonate the Shepherd King Arminta and enact his plight. Her ample, well-schooled, warm lyric soprano blossomed especially above the staff, and her stage demeanor served up a generous helping of star-quality. Miss Stober was well partnered by her “betrothed,” the tenor Alek Schrader, pressed into duty to play the emperor Alexander. Mr. Schrader has an exceptionally pleasing Mozartean timbre, and his bravura rapid-fire melismatic phrases were heart-racingly delivered.
My favorable impression of Maureen McKay in last summer’s Un Cosa Rara was here confirmed with a securely sung Elisa, a maid who briefly enjoys enacting the longings of a noblewoman. Miss KcKay is capable of regaling us with accurate cascades of fioritura, likewise deploying her crystal clear tone in melting legato phrases. Her spunky stage savvy is equally bewitching. Paul Appleby has fewer fireworks to negotiate in the role of Agenore (advisor to Alexander, in love with Tamiri), but he sang with style and panache. As Tamiri, Daniela Mack complemented her cast mates with her slightly darker rich tone and attention to every musical detail. All five offered fine English diction, coached on this occasion by soprano Erie Mills.
In the pit, conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni discovered all the youthful spirit and buoyant lyrical possibilities in the score (after a bit of a slack rhythmic start in the first few bars), and there was wonderful solo instrumental work as well throughout the evening. His conscientious partnering of the singers seemed to free them to soar through this youthful-but-challenging work.
The baton was successfully passed the very next night to another conductor whose stock is rising, Michael Christie, who helmed a musically rich reading of The Ghosts of Versailles, by John Corigliano, libretto by William M. Hoffman. After a sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the early 90’s which was followed by several other revivals in major houses, Ghosts languished, largely (it is believed) owing to the lavish original designs, and massive instrumental and vocal forces required.
At St. Louis, the production team and composer have sought to down-size the piece to make it more accessible to smaller opera companies. As evidenced here, they have been largely successful in their attempt. Corigiliano is a brilliant orchestrator, and his original score took full advantage of the huge pit and full band of the Met. Here, Ghosts was re-scored in a new performing edition commissioned by OTSL and executed by John David Earnest. It was quite a successful trade-off, and much variety and color remained, many times (favorably) suggesting the smaller scores of Benjamin Britten. While the instrumental presence was almost always ample, there were a few climactic moments that seemed a mite under-powered, not least of which was the very final sting of Act One. These minor quibbles aside, this was a very fine re-working of the piece, that retained its musical integrity.Kevin J. Glavin as Louis XVI and Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette with (at rear l. to r.) Dorothy Byrne as Susanna and Hanan Alattar as Rosina in The Ghosts of Versaille
We were equally fortunate with the physical production, directed by James Robinson, with sets by Allen Moyer, costumes by James Schuette, and most important, highly evocative video projections by Wendall K. Harrington. As we entered the auditorium, we discovered the theatre at Versailles, on stage, being refurbished by a contemporary restoration crew in blue jump suits. That image segued into the arrival of the ghosts, attired in lavish period costumes, and superb wigs/make-up by Tom Watson (a company treasure, he). The first notes of the score sounded, sans the usual conductor’s entrance, and the lighting melded into disorienting video work that transported us to the deserted stage of long ago, “beyond time” as the program noted. It should be said that Paul Palazzo provided the uncommonly fine lighting designs for both evening’s performances.
One element of the work that resisted diminution was the large cast demand. It took a village to get this work up, and there was great depth in the entire cast largely thanks (again) to the company’s young artists, who also formed the chorus under Sandra Horst’s direction. I did find that the dancers contributed less to the overall dramatic experience than they might have, and elimination of the dance corps might be a possible further cut-back. The stage got crowded at times, although Mr. Robinson not only managed the traffic well, but focused the important dramatic moments and developed believable characters and strong relationships.
Without creating a laundry list, it is hard to single out all who were excellent in this large ensemble cast. Certainly expectations were high for Maria Kanyova (another former apprentice) as Marie Antoinette, and she did not disappoint. Ms. Kanyova has a responsive soprano, with a hint of metal that stands her in good stead in dramatic segments, but she can also scale her voice down to float effective pianissimi that veritably float above the staff. She was a worthy successor to the great Teresa Stratas who created the role. Christopher Feigum was suitably winning as Figaro, although in his first big aria all the acting seemed to be external. The internal spark of creation crept in sometime during his (quite funny) Act One finale drag moments as the harem girl and he remained fully engaged for the rest of night. His pliant, smooth baritone gave considerable pleasure and he is a talent to watch.
Mr. Corigliano apparently loves his baritones and he created a fine complementary foil in Beaumarchais, well-taken on this occasion by James Weston. As should be, Mr. Weston has a little more maturity of tone and the bronze patina of his upper register contributed to a very effective contrast. His love for the doomed heroine was wonderfully embodied and his alternately witty and sensitive delivery enabled a well-rounded character to emerge.
As stage characters in the concurrent Figaro comedy, a jewel of an ensemble worked tightly together in a slightly heightened play-acting style. Samuel Read Levine (Leon), Paula Murrihy (Cherubino), Sean Panikkar (Almaviva) were all terrific, with young artist Jeanette Vechhione capturing the most applause for her technically secure stratospheric singing as Florestine. Hanan Alattar and Dorothy Byrne were exquisite in their limpid lyrical outpouring of the extended Act Two duet for Rosina and Susanna, a musical high point.
The real-time bad guys were equally well-served by Lee Gregory, a vocally assured and physically active (and fearless) Wilhelm, and by stentorian, tireless tenor (and fine character actor) Matthew DiBattista as Begearss. Elizabeth Batton did everything possible to amuse us in her star turn as Samira. Originally created for the particular gifts of Marilyn Horne, Ms. Batton made it her own with plummy tone, a well-modulated chest voice, and sound technique in the middle and (ringing) upper reaches. Quite a comedian, she wisely eschewed the baritonal power of Ms. Horne for an equally successful and personalized performance.
If I had to mention only three more performers, I would include the characterful Louis XVI from Kevin J. Glavin, the firm-voiced Marquis of Kevin Park, and the delightful Woman with Hat sung by Erin Holland.
Upon re-visiting The Ghosts of Versailles I still found it a particularly well-calculated mix of old and new styles, in turn challenging and comfortable, telling a dramatically satisfying and captivating story of fate and acceptance. If I still feel that the arias go on a bit longer than needed to make their musical or dramatic point, they never become uninteresting, especially in the hands of such a capable roster of performers.
This production will go on to fall’s Wexford Festival, and it alone would make it worth the trip to Ireland. It deserves many more performances.